Majestic Wine starts a new chapter – and brings back some old favourites

A general view of a Majestic Wine Warehous
Now its marriage to Naked Wines is over, Majestic has a chance to rediscover the values that made it successful Credit:  Andrew Yates

I’m a devoted internet shopper – there’s almost nothing I still buy in a shop – so have grown used to the increasingly familiar pitch of the daily avalanche of emails entreating and inveigling me to spend ever more. Even so, a couple of years ago I got one so needy that it made me wonder if I had an alter ego who had been attending swinging sessions in my name. “It’s been a while since you visited and we miss you,” ran the email. “Was it something we said?! It’s OK, you can tell me.”

Where to start? There were a few reasons why I’d stopped shopping at Majestic Wine and the tone of this email was one of them. It came straight from the playbook of Naked Wines – the online wine company founded by the relaxed South African entrepreneur Rowan Gormley who took charge of Majestic following a reverse takeover in 2015. Naked has been fantastically successful at engaging a new audience of wine drinkers. But the Nakedification of Majestic during the four years in which the two companies were entwined hasn’t been an entirely positive experience – at least, not for wine lovers, who have seen good wines disappear from Majestic stores, and mediocre own-labels come in to replace them.

Majestic now opens a new chapter. Gormley has flip-flopped off to grow the digital Naked Wines in the US as well as in the UK, while the American investment group Fortress, which is backed by Japan’s SoftBank, now takes ownership of the retail chain in a reported £95 million deal. At the time of writing, the sale was not quite concluded but, “we anticipate it will be completed within the next week,” said new executive chairman John Colley when I spoke to him last Thursday.

It has been a choppy year for Majestic, whose employees have had to contend with the possibility that the brand might disappear altogether. The relief emanating from Majestic HQ is almost palpable. Wine drinkers who loved the old Majestic will feel heartened by the news that the new management’s priority is to get back to the things that Majestic always used to be so good at.

“[New buying director] Rob Cooke’s radical new strategy is to buy the wines people want to buy rather than the wines we want to sell them. As a Majestic customer himself he was getting frustrated at what was happening to the range,” said Jack Merrylees, Majestic’s head of communications. Under Naked there had been a deliberate policy of delisting wines from well-known producers. Cooke, who comes to Majestic from Tesco where he was head of Wines, Beers and Spirits, has acted quickly to bring back many old customer and critic favourites, including Petaluma chardonnay, Château Caronne Ste Gemme (a brilliantly reliable claret from the Haut-Médoc), Matsu El Recio (a spicy, smooth red from Toro in Spain), and Kanonkop Kadette Pinotage (a smoky South African pinotage that even I love, and I’m really not a pinotage fan).

'There were a few reasons why I’d stopped shopping at Majestic Wine and the tone of this email was one of them' Credit: adam larkum for the telegraph

The message is reiterated by Colley, who also puts wine – or “product” as he calls it – at the heart of his pitch. “From the history of the business it was the ability to buy parcels of wine that people got truly excited about – that is where the business started and then developed from there. That’s the DNA. We need to think how to get that spice back – [give people] reasons to come into the stores. We’ve lost a little bit of it and need to get back right into the heart of it.”

There was a glimmer of this intent at the most recent press tasting, which featured a parcel of mature claret that will be sold in Majestic for a tenner just before Christmas (more on that when the time comes).

Colley joins Majestic from Kingfisher, owner of B&Q and Screwfix, and describes himself as “not necessarily a wine person” – though he does like a glass of La Toledana Gavi di Gavi. He has done a stint at Majestic before, during the Naked era, when changes he saw through included putting shelves in stores “in place of teetering piles of wine boxes” and creating a next-day delivery service.

He won’t be drawn on the existence of any differences in opinion between him and Gormley on how Majestic should be run. “I know there’s lots of speculation I [left Majestic the first time because I] fell out with Rowan…the reality is it was time for me to leave the business for personal reasons.” He won’t even be drawn when I ask why, if he was doing what he wanted with Majestic when he was running it two years ago, people who aren’t happy with Majestic might be able to expect anything different now he’s back.

But – apart from the very welcome reintroduction of some favourite Majestic wines – there is already one other clear change in direction: the rash of threatened store closures has been shelved. “[Fortress] sees this as a retail business with a web arm. The plan is we are going to be focused on shops and there is not a strategy to close them unless it’s something we have to do because the lease has run out.”

Colley is bullish on the subject of whether Majestic can survive in today’s hostile retail environment. “I wouldn’t have come back if I didn’t think it could. There’s a lot of love for this brand and this business.”

And I hope he is right, because Majestic has the potential to fill a very important space in the life of the modern wine drinker, sitting above the range of increasingly bland wines in the supermarkets and below the independent specialists.

I just have one plea: can he lay off with the lonely hearts emails? There is a guffaw. “We need to review our communication with customers.”

Wines of the week

Chateau Caronne Ste Gemme 2014 Haut-Médoc, Bordeaux, France

(13%, Majestic, £14.99/16.99 mix six/single bottle price)

An old customer favourite and one of mine, too, this is a classic cabernet and merlot blend from a chateau situated just inland of St-Julien. It’s a wine with good bone structure that often tastes better the day after opening.

Krasno Sauvignon Blanc Ribolla Gialla 2018 Slovenia

(13%, Majestic, £8.49/£9.99 mix six/single bottle price)

I love the addition of the ribolla gialla (pronounced “jal-la”) grape, which brings a bit of grip to easy-drinking sauvignon blanc. A refreshing, co-operative-made white from Slovenia.

Louis Latour Domaine de Valmoissine Pinot Noir 2016 France

(13.5%, Majestic, £10.99/£13.99 mix six/single bottle price)

This fragrant and easy-going pinot noir comes from the Var department in Provence, not far from the Gorge du Verdon. It’s great value, with an attractive red berry and lavender/herbal smell.